Portugal's Jews still blighted by the Inquisition

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The Independent Online
IN THE remote Portuguese village of Belmonte, the Roman Catholic cemetery is a riot of bright flowers tossed by the mountain breeze. Dark- clad women are mopping and sweeping the close-set granite graves. But amid the marble crosses and bronze angels, a few headstones show marks where crucifixes have been removed. And some graves in this Christian holy place bear a new Star of David, marking the moment the Jews of Belmonte stopped hiding from the Inquisition.

Belmonte's Jews began to emerge about 12 years ago from a world of dissimulation and doublethink produced by centuries of persecution. And now, having resisted extinction for five centuries, Belmonte's Jews face a crisis that some in the little community fear could destroy it within a generation.

When zealous priests came pounding on doors of Portuguese homes to flush out heretics after 1496, thousands of Jews became Christians to avoid torture and death. They were forced to convert because, unlike Spain which expelled its Jews in 1492, Portugal persecuted them whilst closing the ports to cut off their escape.

But in Belmonte, a few Jewish families clung to their identity. They were baptised, married and buried in church, but in their little granite homes, they celebrated their customs and prayers in secret until long after the Holy Office was suppressed in 1820.

It is Friday afternoon, and Elias Nunes, a tradesman, sits at home in Belmonte's ancient Jewish quarter studying to become a rabbi. It is light outside, but his shutters are closed, the curtains drawn. His wife sloshes the stone steps and hangs out washing in readiness for the sabbath. He receives two non-Jewish visitors warmly, pulling out chairs.

"It's a miracle that our community survived. We resisted for centuries without books and under threat of death. If you cleaned your house on a Friday or didn't eat pork, you were identified as a Jew and executed. It was a traumatic change to throw off fear and come into the open. But unfortunately, not everyone wants to change. Some people's ideas remain in the last century," he says.

Emboldened by the liberating spirit following Portugal's 1973 Carnation Revolution, Mr Nunes, 37, encouraged Belmonte's Jews to come into the open. Numbering fewer than 200, they elected him leader, built a synagogue, studied Hebrew with a rabbi from Jerusalem, stopped baptising their babies, and put the Star of David on family graves in the Catholic cemetery.

Ana Morao, 64, whose roots in Belmonte go back 600 years, used to sell clothes in neighbouring villages, but now embroiders table mats at home. She remembers years of secrecy. "When we were children we were told never to say anything at school, or in the street, about being Jewish." She put her finger to her lips. "Everything was hidden at home. Our festivals and our prayers were celebrated with our families. We attended Catholic church, but secretly worshipped `neither wood nor stone', which meant neither cross nor image."

Women led the prayers and conducted marriage and funeral ceremonies in families'homes. Now, the rabbi has introduced Orthodox Jewish practices and rigorous dietary laws, and men lead the services. Ana Morao's husband Rafael Enriques Rodrigo, who is her cousin, was treasurer of the emergent community, but he and Mr Nunes feel sidelined by today's leadership. "The new community leaders are hostile to outsiders. It gives us a bad image," Ana says.

It is hard for the Belmonte Jews to "relearn" customs they never knew, and abandon ancient practices they considered real Judaism but which rabbis in the 1990s say were not. Many have wondered if they made the right decision. "We lived for 500 years without rabbis, and God didn't abandon us," some muttered.

The prevalence of mental handicap, night blindness, panic attacks and obesity related to intermarriage are rarely discussed. Two of Ana Morao's six brothers suffer from night blindness.

Belmonte's new Jewish leaders keep a low profile: faxes and telephone introductions via the community in Lisbon went unanswered. At the synagogue, the vice-president studies my letter from Lisbon. "Is the lady Jewish?" Alas no. He clearly wants me to go away, but lets me visit the gallery, before locking up with evident relief.

At home, Elias shakes his head sorrowfully when I ask about the future. "We have to change if we are to survive, but I don't see the effort or the desire to open up culturally or socially. The future of my children is not here but in a big Jewish community in Paris or London." He pauses, thinks carefully: "I'm not saying I'm pessimistic, but if you were to write that the future of this community looks pessimistic, you would be telling the truth."